Why the Metric System Might Be Screwed

International Bureau of Weights and Measures
International Bureau of Weights and Measures

The world’s most perfect weight isn’t so perfect anymore. And that has scientists scared.

Hidden in a vault outside Paris, vacuum-sealed under three bell jars, sits a palm-sized metal cylinder known as the International Prototype Kilogram, or “Le Grand K.” Forged in 1879 from an alloy of platinum and iridium, it was hailed as the “perfect” kilogram—the gold standard by which other kilograms would be judged.

Although it’s arguably the world’s most famous weight, Le Grand K doesn’t get out much. Since hydrocarbons on fingertips or moisture in the air could contaminate its pristine surface, it goes untouched for decades, under triple lock and key at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. Every 40 years, however, it makes an appearance. The weight is ushered from its chamber, washed with alcohol, polished, and weighed against 80 official replicas hand-delivered from laboratories around the world. Today, whenever scientists need to verify something is precisely one kilogram, they turn to one of these replicas, over which Le Grand K reigns supreme.

This system sounds absurd, but not too long ago, lots of units relied on similar methods. The kilogram was just one of seven standards of measurement established by the French Academy of Sciences in 1791, all based on physical prototypes. These benchmarks caught on worldwide because standardization was sorely needed. At the time, some 250,000 different units of weights and measures existed in France alone, which meant that the only constant was complete chaos.

Weight Problem

While basing measurements on tangible benchmarks was an improvement, using physical standards wasn’t without its flaws. For one, they have a nasty habit of changing. In Le Grand K’s case, it’s been losing weight. At its most recent weigh-in in 1988, it was found to be 0.05 milligrams—about the weight of a grain of sand—lighter than its underling replicas. Experts aren’t sure where this weight went, but some theorize that the replicas have been handled more often, which could subtly add weight. Others postulate Le Grand K’s alloy is “outgassing,” which means air is gradually escaping the metal.

Whatever the reason for Le Grand K’s gradual wasting away, it’s got scientists scrambling for a more reliable standard. Some argue that this is long overdue, since all other units of measurement are already defined by fundamental constants of nature that can be reproduced anywhere anytime (provided you’ve got some sophisticated lab equipment). The meter, for example, used to be defined by a metal rod stored alongside Le Grand K. But in 1983, it was redefined as the distance light travels in a vacuum during 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Standardizing the kilogram has been trickier, though. Australian scientists are polishing a one-kilogram sphere of silicon, hoping that they’ll be able to count the number of atoms it contains to create a more accurate standard. American physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are attempting to redefine a kilogram in terms of the amount of voltage required to levitate a weight. But so far, neither approach can match Le Grand K’s accuracy.

Why should we care whether a kilogram in a vault is “perfect” or not? Because it’s bad news when your standard is no longer standardized. While no one’s worried whether a single kilogram of apples is a hair lighter or heavier at the produce stand, a small discrepancy can become a gargantuan one if you’re dealing with, say, a whole tanker of wheat. The kilogram is also used as a building block in other measurements. The joule, for instance, is the amount of energy required to move a one-kilogram weight one meter. The candela, a measure of the brightness of light, is measured in joules per second.

These links mean that if the kilogram is flawed, so are the joule and candela, which could eventually cause problems in an array of industries, particularly in technology. As microchips process more information at higher speeds, even tiny deviations will lead to catastrophes. Le Grand K’s unreliability “will start to be noticeable in the next decade or two in the electronics industry,” warns NIST physicist Richard Steiner. If your next smartphone is buggy, you’ll know which hunk of metal to blame.

So scientists continue to chase the perfect kilogram. “Maybe we have all been looking for too high-tech an answer,” says Stuart Davidson of England’s National Physical Laboratory. “There could be something really obvious out there we’ve missed.” The NPL’s website encourages others to give it a shot: Any better ideas on a postcard please. Until then, Le Grand K will remain king—short of true perfection, but as perfect as it gets.

5 Signs Humans Are Still Evolving

Lealisa Westerhoff, AFP/Getty Images
Lealisa Westerhoff, AFP/Getty Images

When we think of human evolution, our minds wander back to the millions of years it took natural selection to produce modern-day man. Recent research suggests that, despite modern technology and industrialization, humans continue to evolve. "It is a common misunderstanding that evolution took place a long time ago, and that to understand ourselves we must look back to the hunter-gatherer days of humans," Dr. Virpi Lummaa, a professor at the University of Turku, told Gizmodo.

But not only are we still evolving, we're doing so even faster than before. In the last 10,000 years, the pace of our evolution has sped up, creating more mutations in our genes, and more natural selections from those mutations. Here are some clues that show humans are continuing to evolve.

1. Humans drink milk.

Historically, the gene that regulated humans' ability to digest lactose shut down as we were weaned off our mothers' breast milk. But when we began domesticating cows, sheep, and goats, being able to drink milk became a nutritionally advantageous quality, and people with the genetic mutation that allowed them to digest lactose were better able to propagate their genes.

The gene was first identified in 2002 in a population of northern Europeans that lived between 6000 and 5000 years ago. The genetic mutation for digesting milk is now carried by more than 95 percent of northern European descendants. In addition, a 2006 study suggests this tolerance for lactose developed again, independently of the European population, 3000 years ago in East Africa.

2. We're losing our wisdom teeth.

Our ancestors had much bigger jaws than we do, which helped them chew a tough diet of roots, nuts, and leaves. And what meat they ate they tore apart with their teeth, all of which led to worn-down chompers that needed replacing. Enter the wisdom teeth: A third set of molars is believed to be the evolutionary answer to accommodate our ancestors' eating habits.

Today, we have utensils to cut our food. Our meals are softer and easier to chew, and our jaws are much smaller, which is why wisdom teeth are often impacted when they come in — there just isn't room for them. Unlike the appendix, wisdom teeth have become vestigial organs. One estimate says 35 percent of the population is born without wisdom teeth, and some say they may disappear altogether.

3. We're resisting infectious diseases.

In 2007, a group of researchers looking for signs of recent evolution identified 1800 genes that have only become prevalent in humans in the last 40,000 years, many of which are devoted to fighting infectious diseases like malaria. More than a dozen new genetic variants for fighting malaria are spreading rapidly among Africans. Another study found that natural selection has favored city-dwellers. Living in cities has produced a genetic variant that allows us to be more resistant to diseases like tuberculosis and leprosy. "This seems to be an elegant example of evolution in action," says Dr. Ian Barnes, an evolutionary biologist at London's Natural History Museum, said in 2010 statement. "It flags up the importance of a very recent aspect of our evolution as a species, the development of cities as a selective force."

4. Our brains are shrinking.

While we may like to believe our big brains make us smarter than the rest of the animal world, our brains have actually been shrinking over the last 30,000 years. The average volume of the human brain has decreased from 1500 cubic centimeters to 1350 cubic centimeters, which is an amount equivalent to the size of a tennis ball.

There are several different conclusions as to why this is: One group of researchers suspects our shrinking brains mean we are in fact getting dumber. Historically, brain size decreased as societies became larger and more complex, suggesting that the safety net of modern society negated the correlation between intelligence and survival. But another, more encouraging theory says our brains are shrinking not because we're getting dumber, but because smaller brains are more efficient. This theory suggests that, as they shrink, our brains are being rewired to work faster but take up less room. There's also a theory that smaller brains are an evolutionary advantage because they make us less aggressive beings, allowing us to work together to solve problems, rather than tear each other to shreds.

5. Some of us have blue eyes.

Originally, we all had brown eyes. But about 10,000 years ago, someone who lived near the Black Sea developed a genetic mutation that turned brown eyes blue. While the reason blue eyes have persisted remains a bit of a mystery, one theory is that they act as a sort of paternity test. “There is strong evolutionary pressure for a man not to invest his paternal resources in another man’s child,” Bruno Laeng, lead author of a 2006 study on the development of blue eyes, told The New York Times. Because it is virtually impossible for two blue-eyed mates to create a brown-eyed baby, our blue-eyed male ancestors may have sought out blue-eyed mates as a way of ensuring fidelity. This would partially explain why, in a recent study, blue-eyed men rated blue-eyed women as more attractive compared to brown-eyed women, whereas females and brown-eyed men expressed no preference.

Now Ear This: A New App Can Detect a Child's Ear Infection

iStock.com/Techin24
iStock.com/Techin24

Generally speaking, using an internet connection to diagnose a medical condition is rarely recommended. But technology is getting better at outpacing skepticism over handheld devices guiding decisions and suggesting treatment relating to health care. The most recent example is an app that promises to identify one of the key symptoms of ear infections in kids.

The Associated Press reports that researchers at the University of Washington are close to finalizing an app that would allow a parent to assess whether or not their child has an ear infection using their phone, some paper, and some soft noises. A small piece of paper is folded into a funnel shape and inserted into the ear canal to focus the app's sounds (which resemble bird chirps) toward the child’s ear. The app measures sound waves bouncing off the eardrum. If pus or fluid is present, the sound waves will be altered, indicating a possible infection. The parent would then receive a text from the app notifying them of the presence of buildup in the middle ear.

The University of Washington tested the efficacy of the app by evaluating roughly 50 patients scheduled to undergo ear surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The app was able to identify fluid in patients' ears about 85 percent of the time. That’s roughly as well as traditional exams, which involve visual identification as well as specialized acoustic devices.

While the system looks promising, not all cases of fluid in the ear are the result of infections or require medical attention. Parents would need to evaluate other symptoms, such as fever, if they intend to use the app to decide whether or not to seek medical attention. It may prove most beneficial in children with persistent fluid accumulation, a condition that needs to be monitored over the course of months when deciding whether a drain tube needs to be placed. Checking for fluid at home would save both time and money compared to repeated visits to a physician.

The app does not yet have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and there is no timetable for when it might be commercially available. If it passes muster, it would join a number of FDA-approved “smart” medical diagnostic tools, including the AliveKor CardiaBand for the Apple Watch, which conducts EKG monitoring for heart irregularities.

[h/t WGRZ]

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